Can the Pirates’ Polanco and Cardinals’ Ozuna turn around their fantasy (and team’s) fortunes in the 2nd Half?

The NL Central has certainly seen its share of shakeups this season. After 18 games and a 3-15 start, the Reds fired manager Bryan Price. Even though the club still sits in the cellar of the Central, they have been more competitive as they have posted a record of 40-38 under new manager Jim Riggleman (and Billy Hamilton has increased his fantasy value consequently as well).

The St. Louis Cardinals made a huge move near the end of the first half of the season, firing longtime manager Mike Matheny after a 47-46 start this season. Though the Cardinals were relatively successful in the regular season under Matheny (they never had a losing season and he finished with a winning percentage of .555 in six-and-a-half seasons), the lack of a World Series title, missing the postseason the last two seasons, and rumors that he had lost respect in the clubhouse ultimately led to his relief of duty mid-season.

And lastly, even though the Milwaukee Brewers sat atop the NL Central standings most of the first half, and the Pirates hovered near the bottom part, in the last series before the All-Star break, the Pirates swept the Brew Crew in a FIVE GAME series to knock Milwaukee out of first place, and 2.5 games behind the Chicago Cubs. Consequently, Brewers fans spent the All-Star break in panic mode, fearing deja vu. Last season, they went through a similar swoon in the second half of the year where they went from the top of the standings to out of the playoff picture during the late summer months. Don’t be surprised to see the Brewers an active player at the Trade Deadline in order to prevent the same kind of “burn out” from happening again in 2018. (Though considering the Josh Hader Twitter controversy during the All-Star game, falling out of the playoff race may be the least of Brewer fans’ problems.)

While the AL Central has been pretty much a snoozefest and a showcase of mediocrity (The Cleveland Indians have seemed to be in first place for like…forever), the NL Central has proven to generate its share of excitement, with more drama forecasted over the season’s second half. (I mean, who saw the Cardinals winning 18-5 against Jon Lester in Wrigley Field?)

As the home stretch of the season begins, there will be two outfielders to pay attention to not only for fantasy purposes but also in terms of how they impact the NL Central race in the second half: the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Gregory Polanco and the St. Louis Cardinals’ Marcell Ozuna. Let’s break each player down individually.


MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at New York Mets

Gregory Polanco, OF, Yahoo! Rank: 113; 73% owned, 60% started in Yahoo! Leagues.

Stats: 49 runs scored, 16 home runs, 51 RBI, 5 SB, .235 average, .823 OPS

Gregory Polanco struggled with injuries a year ago, as he only played 108 games and had 411 plate appearances in 2017. Lingering hamstring issues resulted in deflated numbers across the board: .251 average, .695 OPS, 39 runs scored, 11 home runs, and 35 RBI. (To compare here’s the same line in 2016: .258 average, .786 OPS, 79 runs scored, 22 home runs, 86 RBI in 587 plate appearances). It was questionable which Polanco fantasy baseball and Pirates fans were going to see in 2018: the one that looked like a budding All-Star in 2016 or the one who looked injured and impatient at the plate in 2017.

So far, it’s been a bit of both for Polanco in the first half of the year.

Polanco is showcasing the power again, as his .249 ISO is the highest mark of his career thus far, resulting in 16 home runs before the All-Star break. He is also showing a more discerning eye at the plate as well, as his 12.9 BB percentage would also be a career high as well, and almost double his percentage from a year ago. Without a doubt, it seems like Polanco is fully strong and healthy, and his power numbers certainly demonstrate that and then some.

That being said, it hasn’t been all “sunshine and rainbows” for Polanco in 2018. Despite a tick in power numbers and walk percentages, he still is striking out at a decent clip, as his 23 percent strikeout rate is also a career high. This has resulted in him having a low average at .235, 16 points down from a year ago, and 20 points down from his breakout season of 2016. This may be a result of Polanco maturing as a hitter and becoming more selective: his swing percentage is down at 44 percent, nearly 5 percent down from a year ago. But, even though he is more selective, he hasn’t always made his swings count, as his contact rate is down around 77 percent from 82 percent a year ago, and his swinging strike percentage rose from 8.9 last year to 9.8 so far this year.

Polanco has also benefited from wild stretches of play this season, especially when it comes to power. He hit six home runs in the March and April months and five home runs so far in July, but only hit five combined in June and July. However, while he demonstrated more power in March/April and July, he only hit .195 and .229 (thus far), respectively. On the other hand, though his power numbers were down in the May and June months, he hit better for average, as evidenced by a .306 average in the month of June (his .232 average in May was far less impressive and that month was the stretch where he struggled the most).

The 26-year-old Dominican outfielder has been on a tear as of late, and his hot streak has gotten the Pirates back in the Wild Card mix, even if they remain a long shot (it’s hard to see them doing it considering their starting pitching). A big reason for hope is that the Pirates coaching staff has helped Polanco with his approach, having him step back further in the box before his hot streak so he could get the barrel of his bat around balls quicker. Pittsburgh Tribune writer Chris Adamski in his piece about Polanco highlighted this interesting bit which reveals Polanco’s adjustment in the box:

‘”(Manager Clint Hurdle) called me into the office and he said, ‘Hey you have got to move back from the plate because you have long arms,’ ” Polanco said. “So (Hurdle and the Pirates’ two hitting coaches told Polanco), ‘Just move back and give yourself some space because you are getting jammed, but when you’re back that’s when you hit the ball on the barrel.’…Polanco went from flirting with the Mendoza Line to becoming one of the National League’s best hitters over a span of almost a full month. His .447 on-base percentage and 1.104 OPS since June 10 each rank third among all NL players.”

It will be interesting to see if this small adjustment will continue to help Polanco in the late July, August and September months. He’s a notoriously streaky hitter and he has demonstrated that already in the first half with his vastly different months production-wise. Yes, the power is promising and probably legitimate, but non-existent speed on the basepaths (he only has 5 stolen bases; the days of him being a 20-base threat may be gone), and his declining contact rates should tamper fantasy owners’ and Pirates fans’ excitement for “El Coffee” just a little bit in the second half.


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Marcell Ozuna, OF, Yahoo! Rank: 385; 94% owned, 78% started in Yahoo! Leagues.

Stats: 38 runs scored, 10 home runs, 50 RBI, 2 SB, .270 average, .695 OPS

St. Louis has not been kind to newly acquired outfielders coming to the “Arch” city as of late. After putting up a 128 wRC+ and .276/.393/.447 slash line in the Cubs’ World Series championship season in 2016, Dexter Fowler has declined sharply as a Cardinal, as evidenced by his 56 wRC+ this season.

Unfortunately, the same could be true of Marcell Ozuna, who came over from the Miami Marlins this offseason via trade.

Ozuna was an absolute beast with the Marlins a year ago, lost in the spotlight thanks to a crappy market and larger-than-life superstar in Giancarlo Stanton. Though Stanton garnered more attention (and the bigger contract from the New York Yankees this offseason), Ozuna absolutely tore the cover off the ball in his final season in Miami. In 679 plate appearances, Ozuna hit 37 home runs, drove in 124 RBI, scored 93 runs, hit .312 and posted an OPS of .924. Hence it made sense why Ozuna ranked in the Top-50 in Yahoo! leagues this off-season and considered a second-to-third round draft choice.

But much like Fowler, the performance hasn’t translated on the eastern side of Missouri. Ozuna is down all across the board, and his wRC+ sits at 90, nearly 52 points below his mark last season in South Beach. Though Busch Stadium profiles a bit as a pitcher’s park, so does Marlins Park, which makes Ozuna’s sudden decline concerning for Cardinals fans as well as his fantasy owners.

Now, there are a variety of factors in play that can explain Ozuna’s “down” season in St. Louis. For starters, Ozuna hasn’t always been a high-average hitter, as his batting average each year from 2013-2016 (before his breakout year) was .265, .269, .255, and .266. Not terrible by any stretch, but not the .300 plus mark he demonstrated in 2017. The key reason why it went up so much last year? Well, one could credit that to the BABIP monster, as his BABIP was .355 in 2017, his highest mark as a professional. While his BAIP had been in the .320-.330 range before in his career, the .355 mark probably was more an indicator of luck than skill, as 25-35 points higher than typical is just unsustainable. Currently, his BABIP is .312 which is close to league average and more akin to what he had showcased in the past, hence the dip in average.

On the other hand, the dip in power is a bit more concerning, as he hit 23 home runs in 2014 and 2016 prior to his 37 home run output last year. Having only 10 home runs thus far and an ISO of .115 (which would be a career low) is not typical for him and a serious regression for a hitter who was just starting to fully realize his power stroke a year ago. So…what gives with Ozuna’s lack of punch?

Too many groundballs, and not making his flyballs count.

Ozuna has always hit a lot of groundballs before, as he had a 1.41 GB/FB rate a year ago during his power surge. This year though, not only is he hitting even more groundballs, as evidenced by a 1.51 rate, but his fly balls don’t pack the same punch. Last season, he had an HR/FB of 23.4 percent. This year? That percent is 10.8 percent. That needs to improve if he wants to salvage something at the plate in the second half. On a positive note, Ozuna still hits the ball hard, as his hard-hit balls percentage is actually up at 46.5 percent (it was 39.1 percent a year ago). Thus, it may be a sign that he just needs more luck and see some of those balls to go out of the park rather than stay in the yard or worse, in the gloves of opposing outfielders.

Ozuna doesn’t exactly have the most patient eye (especially in contrast to Polanco), and that has never been more evident this year with his 0.29 BB/K ratio. And yet, other than BB/K ratio and the standard scoring categories, a lot looks the same statistically for Ozuna in comparison to previous years: his plate discipline numbers are close to his career average, and he has actually improved in contact rate and swinging strike percentage. Yes, Ozuna isn’t duplicating his 2017 numbers, but he still has the potential skill-wise to replicate what he did before from 2013-2016 if some breaks go his way in the second half.

Who knows what has been the true reason behind Ozuna’s underwhelming season in the Cardinals red. Overembellished expectations from Cardinals fans and fantasy owners? Not gelling with his new club? Pressing under former manager Matheny? The list could go on and on, really.

But, Ozuna isn’t as mediocre as what he’s showed in the first half. And if he can get back to his normal, average numbers, (especially in power and run production) then well…not only will his fantasy owners be happy, but the Cardinals faithful will also be too. (Not easy to do considering they’re the “best fans in baseball.”)

/vomiting after re-reading the last sentence I just wrote…

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It’s the end of an era for Baltimore (and Kansas City too) after the Machado trade

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After hanging out at the All-Star game, Manny Machado (left) and Matt Kemp will be teammates in the 2nd half of the 2018 season. (Photo Credit: USA Today)

Manny Machado is one of my favorite players in baseball, not easy to do since commissioner Rob Manfred feels some MLB’s stars don’t “engage enough” to be marketable. (To be fair to Manfred though, Mike Trout can be as engaging as Colton Underwood from this season’s “Bachelorette.”) That being said, most of my affection for Machado stems from having him on my fantasy team for almost seven years now. I was able to acquire Manny Machado in my fantasy league off of waivers when he debuted for the Orioles in August of 2012. The rush for him from other league owners was insane, as nearly every team in the league put in a waiver bid for him. It made sense. He was not only the top prospect in the Orioles system, but he was considered one of the top prospects in baseball at the time, some characterizing him as the next Alex Rodriguez. Machado had the size (he stood six foot, three), the youth (he broke into the Majors not too long after his 20th birthday), the defense (many projected him as a perennial Gold Glove player; they weren’t wrong) and the rare combination of ability to hit for average and power that most middle infielders could only dream of.

I named my fantasy team “Machado, Machado Man” (a play on this famous song) in honor of him for a couple of seasons (before I eventually settled on my current name: “(Chien) Ming Dynasty“; a combo of the Ming Dynasty of China and Chien Ming Wang, a pitcher formerly of the Yankees). And for Orioles fans, baseball fans in general, and me as a fantasy owner, Machado hasn’t disappointed.

Over his seven seasons, Machado has accumulated a WAR of 30.9, has four All-Star Appearances, and two Gold Gloves to his name. He’s hit 162 home runs in his career thus far, an average of 31 dingers per season. And most importantly, he’s helped make the Baltimore Orioles relevant, no small feat considering they’re in a division with traditional MLB powers such as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

After back to back ALCS appearances in 1996 and 1997 (which included young Yankees fan Jeffrey Maier interfering with play and robbing a home run at Yankees Stadium which supposedly turned the tide of the series), the Orioles fell into a tremendous rut of mediocrity that probably should’ve been profiled in some way on “The Wire“. The successful days of Mike Mussina and Armando Benitez on the mound, Cal Ripken in the infield, and Brady Anderson and Geronimo Berroa in the outfield became a ghost of the recent past, as the Orioles and the fans in Baltimore suffered through 14 consecutive losing seasons from 1998-2011. The Orioles became a roundhouse combo of lousiness: they overpaid for veterans who had no impact (Rafael Palmiero and Miguel Tejada), picked poorly in the draft (Wade Townsend, Billy Rowell, Matt Hobgood to name a few), and failed to have any stability in management, whether it was in the dugout or front office.

After drafting Machado in 2010 with the third overall pick, the Orioles fortunes began to change. Just two years after drafting Machado and hiring Buck Showalter as field manager and Dan Duquette as General Manager (both moves were criticized by experts around the league; as many felt they were retreads in baseball circles, failing with the Diamondbacks and Red Sox before, respectively), the O’s made the playoffs with a 93-69 record, which included a win in the AL Wild Card play-in game over the Rangers, and an exciting five games series with the rival Yankees (they lost 3-2). 2012 in many ways could be likened to the 2014 Kansas City playoff run in which the MLB team captured the attention and endearment of the city. Baltimore was no longer dominated just by the Ray Lewis and the Ravens. For a brief glimmer of time, Baltimore became a baseball town again, and Machado was front and center leading the charge.

For five more seasons, the Orioles remained competitive, making the playoffs two more times (2014 and 2016; they were ironically swept by the Royals in 2014, though Machado didn’t play that series due to injury), and only having one losing record in that time span (in 2017, where they went 75-87; most of that was credited to a late-season swoon where injuries hurt the club). As the Orioles became more competitive, Machado developed as a player. He didn’t quite maintain the defensive prowess he displayed early on in his first two seasons, but he did display a stronger power stroke, as he posted three straight seasons of 30+ home runs from 2015-2017. Debates in baseball circles fluttered about what position Machado really should’ve been playing. (Was he a shortstop or a third baseman?) However, as Machado entered his Age 25 and final season of club control, there was no debate that he was one of baseball most high-profile stars.

Orioles fans probably knew that the shoe of this competitive run was going to drop sooner or later. After all, it is Baltimore, where “The Gods will not save you.” Despite Machado being in the midst of one of his best offensive seasons yet (he has 24 home runs, a .963 OPS, and an OPS+ of 164), the Orioles have rekindled their early 2000’s selves (i.e. shitty), battling in the basement of the American League along with the Royals, both on pace for nearly 120 losses. (Such a far cry from their 2014 ALCS matchup, right?) With Machado going to command a big payday in the offseason, and a dire need to rebuild the farm system (the farm system has ranked below league average since 2014, according to Baseball Prospectus), Machado was finally traded, after weeks of rumors, to the defending NL Champs, the Los Angeles Dodgers, for an impressive haul of prospects.

It sucks. I grew up a San Francisco Giants fan living in Northern California, where hating the Dodgers came as natural as voting for a Democratic candidate in an election. To see Machado, one of my favorite players and the lynchpin of my fantasy baseball team for seven years (because I got him as a rookie keeper, he started off as a 20th round draft pick his first full year and has gone up one round every year since; yes, it’s the deal of the century) now wearing Dodger blue makes me sick. He should’ve been an Oriole for at least one more contract (like five-seven years). He should be up there with legends like Brooks Robinson and Ripken. Instead, he’ll just be another cog in the Dodgers long history of “irritating players of greatness,” while the Orioles and their fans have to suffer undoubtedly through another stretch of losing, hoping that another Machado will come around to save them sooner rather than later.

(To get a sense of the Orioles fan perspective, I embedded this link I found on Twitter. It was tough to watch this video below of Mallory Rubin of the Ringer say goodbye to Machado; it just goes to show you how rough it is for Orioles fans to be the black sheep of the AL East.)

And to make matters worse, Machado’s trade and the Orioles’ decline most likely is a sign of the lean years in store for Kansas City as well.


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First Machado (right, orange) left the Orioles; Is the Royals’ Mike Moustakas next?

 

Strangely enough, the Orioles and the Royals have been joined at the hip when it comes to their standing in Major League Baseball since the early 80’s. As the Orioles have risen to competitiveness in the 2010’s, the Royals have followed. The Orioles won a World Series in 1983. The Royals won two years later in 1985. The Orioles made the playoffs in 2012 after a 14-year absence. The Royals made the playoffs in 2014 after a 20-year absence. In their first playoff game after a lengthy absence, the Orioles won the Wild Card play-in game in dramatic fashion over an AL West foe (the Rangers). In their first playoff game after a lengthy absence, the Royals won the Wild Card play-in game in dramatic fashion over an AL West foe (the Athletics).

And of course, don’t forget the epic fight between the two clubs in 2016 which started with Machado and Royals pitcher Yordano “Ace” Ventura (RIP).

To further demonstrate the close Orioles-Royals connection in the 2010’s, baseball fans have to look no further to the 2010 MLB Draft. In what many people considered a three-player draft, the Orioles selected Machado with the third pick after Bryce Harper at 1 (to the Nationals) and Jameson Taillon at 2 (to the Pirates). Who had the fourth? No other than the Royals, who selected Christian Colon, a light-hitting, defense-first shortstop out of Cal State Fullerton. Unlike Harper or Machado, Colon has failed to stay in the Big Leagues, as he was waived by the Royals last season, and currently is in the minors in the New York Mets organization.

Strange how baseball works sometimes, huh?

In the coming days, much like the Orioles, the Royals will lose their third baseman (Mike Moustakas) for a bunch (fingers crossed) of prospects (though the haul won’t be as impressive as the Orioles’ package). And like Machado was the last major remnant of the Orioles’ competitive stretch, Moustakas leaving will also signify that somewhat as well. Instead of being side-by-side competing for an American League title like in 2014, it will instead be a battle for top draft picks on an annual basis, similar to what it was in the 2000’s for both clubs.

It will be different for Royals fans of course. The Orioles got a shot in the head with the Machado trade. It was obvious, high-profile, and expected. By June, Machado’s time in Baltimore was up, and thus, the club and fans have been in this rebuilding mindset for quite some time.

The process to the Royals’ rebuild, on the other hand, has instead been a slow one, not to mention painful. First James Shields…then Ben Zobrist…then Wade Davis…then Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain…and soon to be Moustakas and maybe Salvador Perez, should the price be right (though the latter may not happen this year). For Royals fans, they would have definitely traded places with Orioles fans and their more publicized loss of their beloved superstar.

At least the pain and agony came all at once and they can move on quickly.

Unlike Orioles fans with Machado, Royals fans are still waiting for that final shoe to drop. And like most baseball moments over the past decade between the two clubs, it always comes a little bit slower for Kansas City than Baltimore.

 

 

Should Salvy Be an All-Star? (Yes, but not for the reasons you think…)

The All-Star game is at the end of the day an exhibition for baseball fans. It doesn’t “count” anymore (thank God), and even though most fans will vote on players based on merit, it is understandable that fans may vote a player in over one who may be more deserving statistically. One can look at Bryce Harper, who’s playing the All-Star game in his hometown, for getting voted in as a starting outfielder, even though he is hitting only .214, the lowest batting average of his career. But, his copious amounts of dingers (23 home runs thus far), and the host crowd got him over, even though there probably were better starting options available in the National League.

In the American League, some are making the case that Royals catcher Salvador Perez shouldn’t be on the All-Star roster, let alone starting (though to be frank, he is only starting because original starting catcher, Wilson Ramos, suffered a hamstring injury right before the break and is expected to go to the DL. The emergency start will be the 29-year-old Venezuelan’s fifth-straight start in the All-Star game and his sixth appearance in the Mid-Summer Classic overall. Yet despite those gaudy accolades, it isn’t hard to see where non-Kansas City baseball fans might have a problem with Perez taking an All-Star spot, as this season has been one of the more mediocre ones of his career statistically, and he is the face of the worst team in baseball record-wise at the break. Some may argue that Yan Gomes of the Indians should have been starting the All-Star exhibition rather than Perez, considering Gomes’ offensive numbers are better than Perez’s and the Indians are in first place in the AL Central. And furthermore, some may argue for the Yankees’ Gary Sanchez, whose average is a lot worse than Perez’s (.190 to .221), but has demonstrated better-advanced numbers than Perez in the first half (.313 wOBA to .281 for Perez).

I am not saying that Perez is a slam dunk All-Star selection by any means. This first half has certainly been concerning for one of Royals fans’ most beloved players. That being said, I will explain why Salvy deserves an All-Star berth and even start this year even though the “surface level” stats may say otherwise.


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While he has 13 home runs, Salvy has struggled offensively, as evidenced by his .281 wOBA.

The case against Salvy starting/playing in the All-Star Game…

The main case against Salvy starting the All-Star game mostly centers on offense. And to be honest, you would have a point. In the table below that I created initially on Fangraphs, I sorted all AL Catchers who had 200 or more plate appearances. As you can see, according to wRC+, Salvy ranks 8th out the 11 qualifying catchers, with a mark of 73. If you sort the other offensive only categories below, he ranks near the bottom in most.

Another aspect that hurts Perez is his offensive runs above average (OFF), which sits at a negative-12.1, good for 9th out of the 11 qualifying AL catchers in this sample. OFF combines batting runs and baserunning runs, and as one can see, Perez has been more detrimental than positive to the Royals lineup (though to be fair, this is a 27-win Royal team we’re talking about; pretty much everyone has been detrimental to this roster this year). One big reason for Perez’s lackluster offensive ability has been his lack of plate discipline this season, as Perez has become more free-swinging than ever. Al Melchior of Rotographs wrote a great piece on Perez’s ineffective and wild approach at the plate as a big reason for his decline in 2018. Melchior had this to say about Perez in his article (for more context, check out the graphs embedded in Melchior’s piece):

“If he is slumping, it may be because of where he is at in his career arc. Perez has never been a choosy hitter, but his plate discipline has been especially bad the last two seasons…He has increased his O-Swing% substantially this year, just as he did last year. Possibly because pitchers know they don’t have to give Perez pitches in the strike zone, his Zone% has fallen precipitously, especially from 2017 to 2018…It’s a trend that is working against Perez, because he has the lowest wOBA on pitches outside of the strike zone…of any hitter this season (min. 100 plate appearances on pitches out of the zone). Perez (.173), Chris Owings (.189) and Alcides Escobar (.196) are the only hitters with a sub-.200 O-wOBA.”

Everything about Perez’s offensive numbers screams “horrendous”. His .221/.259/.394 slash resemble a starting catcher at the end of his prime, not a 29-year-old All-Star. His BB/K ratio sits at 0.14, and his walk rate is 2.9 percent, a sign of a grossly impatient hitter. Lastly, his swinging strike percentage of 13.4 percent is the highest rate of his career and his 77.4 percent contact rate is the lowest of his career.

And when you combine that with the fact that he plays on a 27-win Royals team which plays in arguably the worst division in baseball (at least the Orioles have the excuse that they’re playing regularly against the Red Sox and Yankees), and it’s easy to see why the argument against Perez being an All-Star is valid. Yes, Salvy is a loveable figure in baseball. Yes, he is associated with great memories of success for Royals fans. Yes, he’s probably one of the few (if only) guys keeping this Royals team together in the clubhouse.

But, according to critics, All-Star appearances should be awarded by merit, not reputation. And thus, based on his qualifications and offensive output, it is understandable to see why Perez shouldn’t deserve an AL All-Star nod in 2018.


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Salvy has thrown out 43 percent of runners stealing, the 2nd best mark in the AL.

Why Perez deserves an All-Star berth…

As an offensive lynchpin in the Royals lineup, Perez has been disappointing. As a fantasy player, Perez has been disappointing. There’s no question about that. However, baseball is more than just offense and how much a player impacts fantasy statistical categories. If it was only about that, then there wouldn’t be a vote, MLB would just pick the top guys based on wRC+ and WAR and not think twice about it.

When it comes to judging a baseball player completely for an All-Star berth, his defensive ability also comes into play, and by most advanced metrics, Salvy is one of the best in the American League. His defense and ability to save runs as a catcher is a big reason why he deserves a spot on the AL All-Star roster this year.

Now, catcher defense numbers are still a work in progress, but there are many ways to evaluate how effective a catcher is behind the dish. Practically speaking, when one evaluates catchers two tangible things come to mind:

1.) How often does he throw runners out?

2.) How well does he keep pitches in front of him?

When it comes to caught stealing percentage (i.e. the percentage of runners he throws out trying to steal a base), Perez is at 43 percent, the second-best mark in the American League (behind the Angels Martin Maldanado who has a 48 percent caught stealing rate). He also has the second fewest bases stolen against him with 16, a sign of the respect for Perez’s arm from opposing teams (Thus affirming point 1 from above). Furthermore, in addition to saving runs on the basepaths, Perez also prevents baserunners from advancing, as he has only three passed balls this year, which ties him for fewest in the American League with the Blue Jays’ Russell Martin. (Thus affirming point 2 from above.)

(The passed balls category is where he and Maldanado deviate, as the Angels catcher actually leads the AL in passed balls of qualifying catchers with 10 this year.)

Perez’s advanced numbers are even better, as you can see in the graph below (this too was compiled from Fangraphs, originally).

As the numbers demonstrate, he leads in defensive runs saved above average (DEF) and stolen-base prevention (rSB) of qualified American League catchers with marks of 8.5 and 4, respectively. And thus, while one can question Perez’s offensive merits this season, his defensive prowess is not debatable. Salvy has been unquestionably one of the, if not the, best defensive catcher in the American League so far in 2018.

That statement alone merits Salvy a spot in this year’s All-Star game in the Nation’s Capital.


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Salvy deserves this All-Star berth for himself and Royals fans, despite what some critics may say…

What are my final thoughts on Salvy?

Perez undoubtedly is hitting a crossroad in his career. Offensively, he probably is on the decline and is what he is: a free-swinging hitter who will hit home runs, but will strike out too much, ground out too much and walk too little to really be beyond average. His advanced numbers, especially in the area of plate discipline (as Melchior of Rotographs pointed out), aren’t promising and considering he’s going to turn 30, he’s not at an age where he can really revamp his approach. Sure, he may get a little better possibly in the next year or two, but it’s likely that Perez will be a 0.15-0.25 BB/K ratio guy for the rest of his career (meaning there won’t be much difference between his average and OBP). Longtime batting habits, especially for guys who have played in the Majors and had as much success as Salvy, are hard to break.

That doesn’t mean Royals fans should like Salvy any less or shouldn’t appreciate the value he brings to this Royals team. He’s one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, and his leadership in the locker room can’t be overstated. The guy brings joy to the ballpark and gives the Royals a likable face to a nationwide audience, something not every club in the league can boast. Yes, maybe he’s not statistically the best guy for the All-Star game. But, baseball fans are going to be a lot more entertained with Salvy in the AL dugout than a Jonathan Lucroy or Mike Zunino.

Salvy deserves his All-Star spot. The Royals deserve to enjoy his infectious smile and superb defensive ability in the All-Star game in D.C., especially after this tire-fire of a season thus far.

So for chrissakes baseball fans, let’s cut Salvy (and the Royals overall) a break here.

What can the Royals do to avoid the most losses in franchise history? (Hint: They have 3 choices…)

The Kansas City Royals ended the “first half” of the 2018 season much like they started: by getting the crap kicked out of them by Chicago White Sox (and I say first half because technically it is beyond “half” numerically, but games before the All-Star Break are officially considered the first half, regardless of the number; confusing I know, but I didn’t create this obviously flawed system). As we enter the All-Star break, the Royals are 27-68 through 95 games, which makes them officially the worst team in baseball going into the Mid-Summer Classic (the Baltimore Orioles surpassed them after a 1-0 win over the Texas Rangers on July 15th, which put their record at 28-69). To make matters worse, not only is this Royals team one of the worst in baseball currently, but they could be the worst Royals team in the 50-year history of the club. (What a great way to celebrate such an anniversary, right?)

The team that currently holds the worst record in Royals history is the 2005 Royals, who went through three managers (Tony Pena, Jr., Bob Schaefer, and Buddy Bell) en route to a 56-106 record. Much like the 2018 Royals, the 2005 squad had just experienced some surprising success a couple of seasons prior. In 2003, the Royals won 83 games, their first winning record in over a decade at the time. (They previously had a winning season in 1993, thanks to the pitching of Kevin Appier. Yes, I know, it sounds weird in retrospect.) Unfortunately, the Royals were unable to build on the “feel good” campaign, fell back to earth in 2004, and went 58-104, the worst mark in franchise history at the time until they topped that loss mark by two games a year later. The horrid two-year stretch had a huge ripple effect throughout the organization, as not only did managers and rosters change dramatically from 2004 through 2005, but the club also parted ways with general manager Allard Baird, and replaced him with current general manager and former Atlanta Braves exec Dayton Moore on the last day of May of 2006.

For many Royals fans, the ghosts of 2004 and 2005 seemed to be a distant memory after such a period of success from 2013-2017. In the five-year stretch, the Royals won 80 games or more each season, made the playoffs and World Series twice (2014 and 2015), and added the second World Series championship in the club’s history to their mantle in 2015 (in addition to their one in 1985 where they beat I-70 rival St. Louis). Yes, the Royals were a small market club. Yes, they didn’t have the payroll of the Yankees, Cubs, Dodgers, or Red Sox. But, it was widely thought that the Royals had set a foundation for various levels of success for years to come.

Oh, how misguided and incorrect Royals fans were.

The poisonous brew of players leaving the club in free agency (Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer), poor free agent signings (Ian Kennedy and Brandon Moss), and a lackluster farm system that had been gutted by mid-season trades (Sean Manaea going to Oakland in the Ben Zobrist Trade) and prospects failing to live up to expectations the past few seasons (Kyle Zimmer and Bubba Starling) has resulted in this season being the nightmare Royals fans were dreading at the conclusion of the 2017 campaign. Not only are the Royals the worst team in baseball now, but they are actually outpacing the 2005 club in losses at this point as well.

By the All-Star break in 2005, the Royals were 30-57 after 87 games (due to the season starting later than this year).

Yep, that’s right: the 2005 team was three wins better than the current Royals by this time of the season (and in 8 fewer games to boot). To make matters worse, for the Royals to tie that putrid 2005 squad, they have to to go 29-38 for the remainder of the season, which means they would have to win at least 43 percent of their remaining 67 games. To compare, in the first half, the Royals only won 28 percent of their 95 games.

To put it lightly, Kylie Jenner winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 would seem like an easier and more plausible task than the Royals tying or surpassing the 2005 Royals’ 56 wins. If the Royals duplicate their win percentage in the second half, they would only go 19-48, which would result in a record of 46-116. So, as you can see, the Royals would have to make up 10 games, just to even tie, which seems like an incredible feat, especially when one considers the trade deadline is July 31st. It is entirely possible there will be one to a few players on the current roster missing come August, hence making the team even weaker down the stretch.

So what should the Royals’ strategy be? What should Moore and manager Ned Yost due to avoid history and the moniker of “Worst Team in Royals History?” Here are a few “strategies” the Royals could take that might have an effect on their fortunes after the All-Star break.


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The Royals could keep playing veterans like Alcides Escobar, and hope they turn it around in the second half.

Strategy #1: Keep the Vets, Play to Win

It seems like a foregone conclusion that the Royals by the trade deadline are going to part ways with Mike Moustakas, and it seems highly likely that they will also part with Lucas Duda and/or Whit Merrifield to help give a contending team an offensive boost down the stretch. And it makes sense. The Royals are going nowhere, and they need to re-stock their farm system, which was ranked near the bottom in the Majors by nearly every publication of note. To trade some established stars for prospect depth at the deadline is a proven strategy that has worked for many clubs in years past (the Oakland A’s are masters of this approach).

But, teams these days value their prospects more than ever, and it is possible that the Royals may not get much in return for some of their current players. After all, Moustakas didn’t field much interest in free agency last off-season (hence him still being on the Royals), and while he’s having a solid season (19 home runs, 58 RBI, .250 average, and a .775 OPS), he has been overshadowed by Manny Machado when it comes to trade talks. Duda is a big bat, but he’s going through a down season at the plate and is a defensive liability, making him useless on a National League team. And while Merrifield offers position versatility and is a threat with the bat and on the basepaths, he won’t be a free agent until 2023, and he’ll be turning 30 next year, not an age where players of his skill set typically get better.

So with that being known, Moore may say “screw it” to all offers and just let it ride on the vets, and hope that they can stay healthy and turn around this season. The positive? Well, the Royals certainly would have a better chance to win with Merrifield and Moustakas and Duda in the lineup for the rest of the 2018 season as they have shown glimpses of success this year and in previous seasons. The negative? The veteran strategy would also employ vets such as Alcides Escobar, who has a negative-1.8 WAR, the worst mark on the team, as well as Kennedy and Jason Hammel in the rotation, who each have a 5.13 and 6.15 ERA, respectively.

Yost is a loyal, player-friendly manager, and if given the chance, he would trot Moustakas, Merrifield, Duda, and Escobar in the infield every day until the last game of the season, regardless of their performance. So the decision to employ or not employ this strategy would rest on Moore, who would need to trade at least one of these vets to take the lineup card out of Yost’s hands.


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Youngsters like Jorge Bonifacio (center) playing with veterans like Whit Merrifield (left) and Mike Moustakas could be a recipe for success.

Strategy #2: Play the youngsters, but in the right spots

We’re starting to see this strategy a bit in July, as Yost has started to depend on Adalberto Mondesi at SS rather than Escobar. (Though I do not get why he’s playing Escobar out of position in the outfield; he’s the worst hitter on the team…why is he continuing to play?) He’s also been giving Hunter Dozier, and Jorge Bonifacio at-bats as well, a sign that the organization wants to start seeing which “prospects” will have a future with the big league club, and which ones will be traded or triple-A fodder in the next couple of years.

But, going all out on the youngsters carries some risk. Some of the young players have responded, such as Mondesi, who has finished the first half with a .714 OPS. Some still leave a lot to be desired, like Dozier, who was touted as a strong-hitting, corner infielder, but is only hitting .211 with a .604 OPS and has negative-1.0 WAR, the second-worst mark on the team. So, it would be wise to balance out lineups with young guns and veterans on a day to day or series to series basis.

Want to start Mondesi, Dozier, and perhaps Cheslor Cuthbert, when he comes back from the DL (or perhaps Nicky Lopez, who may get called up from Omaha soon), in the infield? Well, make sure Merrifield is in the lineup to stabilize things. The same strategy applies to the outfield. Going with Bonifacio and Rosell Herrera? Then Gordo will be the left fielder to provide veteran mentorship to the lineup as well as in the field. The same works in the rotation, as Danny Duffy could be a veteran mentor for young starters like Brad Keller and Trevor Oaks (who should get called up again sometime in the second half).

The strategy carries a little more risk, since many of the young players on this roster are pretty unproven, and as stated before, they come from a system that isn’t highly regarded by any means. That being said, these lineups offer a little more upside than a “veteran only” strategy, and could also provide some hope for the future for Royals fans.


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The Royals could go all in on their prospects at the big league level, like Adalberto Mondesi at SS.

Strategy #3: Go all in on youth…regardless of the result

The Royals could do the equivalent of the “blow it up” NBA model. Moore and Yost could say “You know what? Screw the veterans! Who cares if they won us a title in 2015! Let’s rebuild now!” Escobar? Now a benchwarmer. Duda and Gordon? Spot starters. Hell, even give Salvador Perez a couple of days more off than usual so we can see what Cam Gallagher can do.

The strategy works in two ways:

  1. The young players get at-bats and experience, and if there’s anything that makes a younger player better at the Major League level, it’s more at-bats and experience. (It’s just common sense, but it’s amazing how some fans don’t understand this basic concept of “more experience = better development; less experience = less development.”)
  2. And if the young players suck, well, the Royals get a high first-round pick, and they know for sure who to build around for the future, and who not to sooner rather than later. When employing strategy #2, the problem is teams can get hung up on players longer than they want because the player is not getting enough at-bats to make a definitive decision. However, if you give 400-500 at-bats to a young player in a season, and he is clearly bad, well…it’s easier to cut ties because that is a pretty large sample size.

So there are some strong benefits to the “go young and let it ride” approach. Nonetheless, it’s a strategy that also carries a ton of risk (definitely the most of the three) and could alienate the fanbase more than the box office would like (i.e. it could kill ticket sales; the Royals still rank 11 out of 15 in the AL in attendance, which is a lot better than the 2005 squad). While the Royals need to rebuild and start looking to the future, the typical Royals fan wants to see faces he or she remembers from the 2015 team. So that means seeing Gordo, and Salvy, and Escobar for better or worse. Maybe they’re not the same players they were three seasons ago, but at least seeing their faces brings up good memories and nostalgia over copious amounts of Miller Lite in the bleacher seats.

And fans buying more Miller Lite is good for business at Kauffman stadium.


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Manager Ned Yost will have to make some interesting decisions to help turn around this club in the second half.

What strategy is the best for the Royals?

Personally, from an economic standpoint, number two is obviously the most logical. There are some players worth playing and keeping on this roster. Gordon deserves to play as long as he wants as a Royal (he’s earned it by helping them win a title and has been loyal to the organization through thick and thin), and Merrifield is a gritty player who provides a spark to this club and probably wouldn’t get what he’s worth on the trade market. But, there are a lot of veterans who need to go. As unexpectedly great as Moustakas has been this year, his value will never be higher, and the Royals need to get something in return to help stock their Royals system (after all, they received three prospects for Kelvin Herrera; I’m sure the Royals can get more for Moose). Escobar’s defense and timely hitting was appreciated in the 2014 and 2015 playoff runs, but his time as a serviceable MLB player is up and Mondesi deserves his shot. And while Duda brings a veteran bat to the lineup, I would rather see Dozier get a full shot at the position to see if he can be a big-league player, or if he’s simply a “four-A” prospect.

Overall, it’s likely the Royals will probably employ an overall #2 strategy as well. (I mean, really, how could you not? It’s the most practical strategy.) But the big question will be this: Will Moore and Yost’s strategy be closer to #1 or closer to #3? Will they still be loyal to the vets? Or will they ride their fortunes a little more on the young guns, with “low-key” hopes to secure the No. 1 pick if those youngsters don’t pan out?

I think Royals fans will have a good idea of their choice in strategy come August 1st.

Can Danny Duffy Not Pitch at Kauffman? (A look at Duffy’s 1st Half)

In many ways, as a Royals fan, I feel like I have been hard on starting pitcher Danny Duffy this season. Maybe it was the shellacking he received on Opening Day against the White Sox that has stuck with me for these first few months of baseball. Or maybe it’s the fact that Duffy hasn’t turned into the “savior” ace that we hoped he would be ever since he was drafted in the third round by the Royals in 2007. (Tall, big, hard-throwing lefties can generate that kind of fervor; remember, the Natural?) For whatever reason, Duffy’s reputation as a Royals starting pitcher seems to be more synonymous with words such as “inconsistent” and “frustrating” rather than “successful” or “star”.

But we need to give Duffy some credit: he has been the Royals’ best pitcher this year in the first half. Period. No doubt about it.

Jason Hammel and Ian Kennedy seem to be on their way out of Kansas City, as Hammel has been regulated to the bullpen, and Kennedy can’t seem to stay off the disabled list. (It will be interesting to see what the Royals do with Kennedy; while Hammel will be a free agent after this year, Kennedy still has two years and nearly $33 million owed to him left on his deal). Jake Junis, who looked like the Royals’ lone bright spot in the rotation at the start, has fallen off a cliff, as he has developed a propensity for giving up the long ball the last couple of months before he too found himself on the DL. And youngsters Erik Skoglund and Trevor Oaks didn’t offer too impressive outings either before they eventually made their way off the Royals’ active rosters (Skoglund to the 60-day DL and Oaks being optioned back to Omaha). For the most part in 2018, the Royals’ rotation has been a revolving door of mediocrity and lacklusterness.

(I could go into more starting pitchers, like Brad Keller and Nathan Karns, but what’s the point? A whole lot of “cups of coffee” and spot starts that won’t have much impact on the rotation going forward, so I figured not to waste the word count.)

Duffy, on the other hand, has been the closest to “dependable” of the Royals’ starting pitchers this year, even though the stats may not look like it at first.

For the year, Duffy’s peripheral numbers don’t look great. In 20 starts and a 113.2 IP thus far, he’s 5-8 with a 4.59 ERA, 4.98 FIP, a K-BB ratio of 1.94, a HR/FB rate of 12.7 percent, and a GB/FB rate of 0.77. For those who don’t know what those numbers mean, I can break it down into bullet points:

  • His FIP is higher than his ERA, meaning that he’s been worse or luckier than his ERA suggests, though not overwhelmingly so. His BABIP (.290) and strand rate (76.5 percent), are pretty league average, hence demonstrating not much of a difference between ERA and FIP.
  • The K-BB ratio is below league average, as typically average is 2. It usually means that he struggled with command, as Ron Shandler of Baseball HQ typically quantifies K-BB ratio as a sign of command.
  • He’s giving up the long ball a decent amount, though batter typically hit more fly balls off of him than groundballs (as evidenced by the GB/FB ratio being under 1). Granted, Duffy is the kind of pitcher who will induce more fly balls than ground balls due to his repertoire (fastball-heavy pitchers will do so; while sinker, less fastball-reliant pitchers will induce more groundballs, but have fewer strikeouts). But he is giving up the long ball more in comparison to last year, where his HR/FB rate was only 7.6 percent in 2017.

So, Duffy has been okay, serviceable, which is probably good enough considering the Royals’ starting pitching woes this year. But there has been an interesting pattern and trend to Duffy’s starts this year:

Duffy has been pretty good on the road, and horrendous at Kauffman Stadium.

On the road, Duffy has shown reasons why the Royals’ gave him a five-year $65-million extension in 2017. In 13 starts and 76.1 IP, Duffy has a 5-4 record, a 3.54 ERA, a 1.38 WHIP and hitters only hitting .238 against him. His advanced numbers are even more impressive, as his K/9 is over 1 better on the road than at home (8.49 to 7.47 at home), his K-BB ratio is better (2.06 to 1.72), he is posting a better FIP (4.58 to 5.79) and he is inducing more groundballs (37.1 to 28.3 percent) and less hard hit balls as well (36.5 to 41.3 percent).

In Kauffman, Duffy has looked like a pitcher at a home run derby. In other stadiums, however, Duffy has been a lot more effective and consistent, worthy of a top spot in the rotation in a Major League rotation (though he isn’t a lockdown ace by any means; even his road numbers, such as the WHIP, could use some improvement).

I mean, Duffy has an ERA of 6.75, a WHIP of 1.63, a 0-4 record, and an HR/FB ratio of 1.93 in supposedly a “pitcher’s park” in Kauffman stadium. Should Duffy just not pitch anymore in Kansas City? Is he unable to handle the pressure of being the ace in front of the hometown fans?

While I think his starts at Kauffman are startling, it may be too early to make any conclusions. On the other hand, though, there are a couple of statistical trends that point to Duffy making an improvement, and that he can carry that development to not just his starts on the road for the rest of the year, but also in Kauffman Stadium as well.

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Duffy has a 0-4 record and 6.75 ERA in 7 starts at Kauffman this season.

Duffy hasn’t pitched a lot at home, and when he has, it’s been against REALLY GOOD competition

The sample size of Duffy’s starts at home is small. He’s only made 7 starts and pitched 37.1 IP in Kansas City. He has almost double of the number of starts (13) and innings (76.1) on the road, so his lackluster performance at Kauffman may just be a result of a small sample size. Also, if you take a look at who he’s pitched against, it hasn’t been the easiest of competition:

  • White Sox (2 starts, 1 loss, 1 no-decision, 10 ER, 10 IP)
  • Mariners (No-decision, 5.1 IP, 1 ER, 7 K’s)
  • Yankees (Loss, 4.0 IP, 5 ER, 2 HR)
  • Twins (No-decision, 6 IP, 4 H, 4 BB, 1 ER)
  • Astros (Loss, 7 H, 6 ER, 3 BB)
  • Indians (Loss, 6 IP, 8 H, 6 ER, 2 BB)

As you can see, that stretch of starts is brutal. The Astros are the defending champs and look to be in the running again. The Yankees have one of the most dynamic offenses in baseball. The Indians are atop of the AL Central, and the Mariners look to be a playoff favorite as well (though most likely in the Wild Card). The only bad teams he faced were the Twins (who are more mediocre than bad; and he actually didn’t pitch badly against them) and the White Sox, who have looked like a playoff team at Kauffman this year, and the worst team in baseball everywhere else.

So, in the second half, Duffy will not only get more starts at home but will also face some easier competition. And when that happens, it is likely that his splits at home will improve, and Royals fans will get to appreciate Duffy’s solid starts in person rather than just on television.

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July has been a good month, as he has a 2.84 ERA so far this month.

Duffy has been pitching well the past couple of months

In June and July, Duffy has started to find his groove, as he has begun to strike out more batters and walk less. In June, he increased his K/9 to 8.70 from 7.09 in May, and he decreased his walk rate slightly from 4.64 to 4.50. In July, those gains were even more pronounced, as his strikeout rate increased to 9.47 and his walk rate decreased to 3.32, which put his FIP at 2.98 for the month of July.

And not only are the K’s up and walks down, but he displayed better command overall, resulting in batters not making good contact against him in July. Hitters only made hard contact 27.3 percent of the time against him in July, down from 42.2 percent in June. His GB/FB was 0.77, down from 1.56 the previous month, and he had a K-BB ratio of 2.86, which was his best ratio overall in the first half.

Yes, a majority of Duffy’s July starts came on the road (2 out of 3), but it’s obvious that Duffy is turning it around as a starter, which should be encouraging for the Royals as they enter the second half of the season. It’s definitely plausible that if he can continue this strong approach, he’ll be successful in the second half, whether it’s home or away.

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Duffy has been a much better pitcher on the road this year. Can he turn it around at Kauffman in the second half?

What should the Royals expect from Duffy?

Duffy is far from perfect, and though comparatively, he’s strong for a Royals pitcher, he’s still pretty average in comparison to other pitchers in the league. He still struggles with runners on and in scoring positions, as his FIP in those situations are 5.39 and 6.40, respectively, and his K-BB ratio is 1.48 and 1.29 in those situations, respectively as well. If Duffy wants to really experience any lasting success (whether this year or beyond), he really has to learn to pitch better in the stretch.

At the same time, the trend for Duffy is a positive one, which should provide some glimmering hope for Royals fans in a season that has been pretty devoid of hope overall (other than the draft and signing prospects). The Royals are pretty all-in on Duffy as their “ace” going forward and Duffy will get the opportunities going forward (and with so much left on his deal, it’s pretty safe to say he’s going to be on the Royals for a good while as well). It’s been nice to see Duffy rebound after a rough start to the year, and at the very least, stay healthy, which is something he has struggled with over the past few seasons.

It’s been a good July for Duffy, and on the road overall, Duffy has been serviceable to somewhat masterful on occasion. As you will see in the video below, his win against Chicago last night was maybe his best of the year, sweet redemption for his awful opening day start against the White Sox.

Duffy is on the right track. Now it’s time for him in the second half to impress the Kauffman faithful, and not just Royals fans visiting opposing stadiums.

Is the Reds’ Billy Hamilton Finally Figuring It Out?

Only seven players in the Majors have over 20 stolen bases thus far as the first half of the Major League Season comes to a close (as of July 14th). Right in the mix is Billy Hamilton of the Cincinnati Reds, who is tied for the fourth-most stolen bases in Major League baseball with 22, along with the Washington Nationals’ Trea Turner and the Seattle Mariners’ Dee Gordon (who led the Majors last season in stolen bases with 60 with the Miami Marlins). Hamilton, who finished with 59 stolen bases, second-most in the Major Leagues, a year ago, trails only Ender Inciarte of the Atlanta Braves (23), as well as the Washington Nationals’ Michael Taylor, and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Starling Marte, who both have 24.

Despite him being in the mix as the league’s stolen base king in 2018, it has been an inconsistent year for the Reds’ speedy outfielder. Projected to take a step forward as a player this year (Yahoo! projected his overall ranking at 59 going into the season), Hamilton got off to a painful start. In his first 26 games and 100 plate appearances to begin the year in March and April, Hamilton hit only .172, with only four total extra-base hits, and he struck out a whopping 33 times. While there were some promising signs (he walked 13 times and he stole five bases in five attempts), it was safe to say that Hamilton, much like the Reds team as a whole, had failed to live up to expectations to start off 2018.

After a slow beginning to the year as a whole organization, the Reds fired manager Bryan Price after a 3-15 start to the year, and a 279-387 record overall (the Reds never had a winning record under Price since he took over in 2014). Furthermore, Reds GM Nick Krall promoted Jim Riggleman, who formerly managed the Washington Nationals. Under Riggleman, the Reds have turned it around, as they are 39-37 under him as of July 14th, and rate as one of the best offensive teams in baseball, as they rank 7th in the Majors in team WAR, a stark difference from their 42-52 record and 5th place standing currently in the NL Central (though to be frank, the Central may be the best division in the National League).

Hamilton has also turned it around after the managerial change, though it may not look like it at first when you see his .233 average and .636 OPS to go along with only three home runs, 19 RBI, and 51 runs scored. If you judge him over the past month though, there hasn’t been a more dynamic player in the Majors than Hamilton. In the last 30 days, Hamilton not only leads the league in stolen bases (17), but he is also hitting .337 with a .825 OPS to go along with a home run, 5 RBI and 20 runs scored in 83 AB. Furthermore, the 27-year-old outfielder has also made a habit of making spectacular plays like the one below against the Cardinals on July 13th.

So what has been the cause of Hamilton’s turnaround? And can he sustain this offensive onslaught in the second half? Or is he due to regress, and be the low average, low OPS fantasy option that has frustrated fantasy owners over the past few years?

Here are a couple of reasons for optimism:

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Riggleman batting Hamilton 9th

It’s very tempting for managers to look at a guy of Hamilton’s speed and think automatically “leadoff” hitter. So far this year, Hamilton never really took to the role, as he only hit .167 with a .546 OPS and BB/K ratio of 0.29 in 12 games and 41 plate appearances in the leadoff spot this year. Since Price was fired though, Riggleman made the decision to bat him 9th (meaning the pitcher would bat in front of him), a strategy fellow NL Central managers such as the Pirates’ Clint Hurdle and Cubs’ Joe Maddon have employed with their teams. The move has paid off somewhat, as Hamilton is batting .244 with a .651 OPS and a BB/K ratio of 0.42 in 72 games and 274 plate appearances in the bottom of the order. Getting to see a pitcher go through eight hitters beforehand, and being relieved of having to “jump start” the offense from the leadoff spot has seemed to have a positive effect on Hamilton, and Riggleman’s unorthodox strategy has paid off for the Reds’ offense (and Hamilton personally) thus far.

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Hamilton is developing his eye at the plate

Hamilton’s walk rate this year is 10.2 percent, which is 3.2 percent higher than last season and would be the highest walk rate of his career if the season ended today. Some might say “he’s more patient” at the plate, but that probably would be misleading. Hamilton’s swing percentage of 46.8 percent his highest percentage since his call-up in 2013 (where it was 50 percent), and his contact rate (77 percent) is lower while his swinging strike percentage (10.7 percent) is higher as well. That being said, he has swung at fewer pitches out of the strike zone (29.5 compared to 29.9 percent) compared to last year, and he is knowing what counts are his strong suit. He is batting .450 when swinging on the first pitch, and .350 when the count even, showing that he is taking advantage of opportunities when he is aggressive, and laying off when counts are not in his favor (as evidenced by the higher walk rate). It has resulted in an increase in strikeouts (25.7 percent), but it’s obvious that Hamilton has honed is hitting a bit as he has matured as a Major League player.

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He’s hitting the ball harder

The negative of Hamilton’s approach? The strikeouts. The positive? Walks and getting on base. Both we have talked about in the previous section. However, another positive byproduct of Hamilton’s refined approach at the plate is that he’s hitting the ball harder than ever before.

If you check out batted ball information via Fangraphs, his line drive percentage sits at 25.8 percent and his fly ball percentage sits at 34.8 percent, both major increases from the previous two years. Furthermore, his groundball percentage is at 39.4 percent, the lowest of his Major League career thus far. And though his medium hit percentage is down to 50 percent (from 59 percent in previous years), his hard-hit ball percentage is 23.8 percent, a career high and nearly a seven percent increase from last year, thus resulting in an HR/FB ratio of 4.3 percent, another career high.

Hamilton is not going to confuse people with Mike Trout anytime soon. But he is hitting the ball harder at the plate in 2018, and that should be promising enough for fantasy owners who are skeptical of his latest hot streak.

What’s the verdict on Hamilton?

A lot of fantasy owners have been patient on Hamilton, as evidenced by him being owned in 77 percent of Yahoo! leagues. However, it finally looks like Hamilton is starting to make owners’ patience a wise decision. He’s hitting the ball harder, he’s getting on base more, and more importantly, he’s stealing bases at his usual, high-end clip. And he’s been more judicious on the basepaths, as he is getting caught less, as his 84 percent success rate is an improvement from his 81 percent rate a season ago.

ZiPS projects Hamilton to steal 22 more stolen bases for the remainder of the year, but it’s plausible that Hamilton may touch the 50 or more mark by the end of this season as well, as long as he stays healthy. He has improved under Riggleman, and Riggleman’s openness to let him run wild on the basepaths, and bat him in the order in an unconventional way has done wonders for Hamilton in terms of bouncing back after a slow start. It’s hard to imagine Hamilton benefitting fantasy teams beyond stolen bases in a major way for the remainder of the year (and perhaps in the future as well). That being said, Hamilton’s speed and stolen base ability are so good and rare that it may not matter as long as fantasy owners have the right combination of power and high-average hitting elsewhere in their lineup to make up for Hamilton’s deficiencies.

Can the Royals’ youngsters spark this lackluster offense?

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Hunter Dozier (left) and Jorge Bonifacio are two Royals players who can help the offense in the second half.

June was a rough month for the Royals, and that’s putting it lightly. After a respectable May, where they went 13-15, the Royals nosedived the next month, going 5-21 and getting outscored 136-58 during the 26-game span. Yes, you read that right: the Royals only managed a measly 58 runs for the ENTIRE MONTH.

The putrid month warranted a piece from Fangraphs from Jeff Sullivan on July 3rd, who analyzed the Royals’ historically bad offensive month. Sullivan had this to say about the Royals’ lack of production over the last 30 days:

The Royals are in last, having managed a team wRC+ of 48. To be more precise, 47.6. The nearest team is the Tigers, with a wRC+ of 72. Over this span, the Royals are the only team to have batted under .200. They’re the only team with an OBP under .250, and they’re the only team with a slugging percentage under .300, and so they’re the only team with an OPS under .550. The Royals have been caught in an offensive tailspin, and the only thing that’s allowed them to avoid too much attention is the fact they were expected to be bad in the first place

I don’t think there’s much I can say that Sullivan has not said already about the Royals’ offense, so if you want to read about it more (because you’re a masochistic SOB), check out Sullivan’s piece, especially worthwhile thanks to the data graph he provides of team hitting wRC+ for all 30 teams (surprisingly, Cincinnati ranks third; goes to show how bad their pitching has been). That being said, as an optimistic Royals fan, I would like to think that Royals can’t possibly duplicate their horrid numbers for the rest of the year (though fingers crossed; this year has been bad enough). But let’s face it: the Royals are not going to turn it around in the second half without some change in the lineup.

With a 25-60 record as of July 4th, the Royals have already begun the rebuilding process thanks to some trades last month (Jon Jay to the Diamondbacks and Kelvin Herrera to the Nationals), resulting in some of the younger Royals’ younger players cracking the lineup. However, with the trade deadline looming on July 31st, it’s only a matter of time before some veterans are traded for assets (Mike Moustakas and Whit Merrifield are prime candidates), meaning the youth movement in the Kansas City will most likely be in full force by August.

So, which Royals younger players can have an impact on this club during these last few months? Which ones can help make the Royals’ offense respectable again?

Let’s take a look at youngsters on the Royals’ 40-man roster who are likely to make an impact, and which ones may leave some left to be desired during the second half of the Major League season.

Don’t expect all that much

Abraham Almonte, OF; Ramon Torres, 2B/SS; Bubba Starling, OF

Almonte is nearly 30 and hasn’t really done all that much at the Major League level, as he is posting an awful slash of .186/.264/.295 in 47 games and 145 plate appearances this year. Considering his age and his lackluster production at the Major League level, Almonte is most likely a “Four-A” player at best who’s probably too good for Triple-A, but not good enough for the Majors.

Torres is a bit younger at 25 years old, and has the versatility to play second and short (much needed should the Royals bite the bullet and designate Alcides Escobar for assignment so Ned Yost can’t play him; I think Dayton Moore’s loyalty will get in the way of this happening), but in 42 career games and 108 plate appearances, Torres hasn’t provided much with the bat as evidenced by a career .229/.269/.265 slash and 43 wRC+. Even in Triple-A, Torres isn’t showing much promise in Omaha, with a slash of only .226/.281/.332 and a .613 OPS in 53 games and 208 AB this season in the PCL.

As for Starling, the former Gardner, Kansas high school sports star and bonus baby has failed to resemble a Major League player at any point in the Minors since he was drafted and received the largest draft signing bonus in team history in 2011 (it was $7.5 million). The best campaign he had was in 2015 in Double-A in Northwest Arkansas where in 366 plate appearances he hit 10 home runs and posted a slash of .254/.318/.426 and an OPS of .744 as a 22-year old. That being said, due to the combination of injury and ineffectiveness, Starling really hasn’t built on that campaign nearly three seasons ago. This past season in Omaha, in 303 plate appearances, he hit only .248 with a .685 OPS and only added 7 home runs and 21 RBI. While Starling will get a chance to get some playing time when the roster expands in September (hopefully he will be healthy by then), it is unlikely that former first-round pick will have much impact at the MLB level this season.

Not totally sure…but some upside

Cheslor Cuthbert, 3B; Adalberto Mondesi, 2B/SS; Rosell Herrera, 2B/OF

Cuthbert is a former top prospect who has yet to capitalize on his “prospect hype” at the big league level. His career slash is .252/.303/.378 with a .681 OPS. That’s fine for a middle fielder with good speed and a good glove, perhaps, but not for a corner infielder. His wRC+ this season before he went to the DL with injury this year is 62, barely an upgrade over the 59 he posted a season ago in 153 plate appearances and 58 games at the big league level (he struggled with injuries as well a season ago). I’m not totally giving up on Cuthbert. With Moustakas holding down third, it’s been hard for Cuthbert to get an extended chance when Moose was healthy. He actually did okay when Moose struggled with injuries in 2016, as Cuthbert hit 12 home runs, posted a .731 OPS and a wRC+ of 95 over 510 plate appearances. It’s not great by any means, but it shows that he can be an average hitter in the lineup (when healthy), something the Royals have been sorely missing this year. Should (or perhaps when) Moose gets traded, and when Cuthbert is healthy (he is raking so far on a rehab assignment in Omaha), it’s possible that he may be able to rebound at the plate with regular playing time.

I have already talked about Mondesi before on this blog, who oozes with potential, but still hasn’t realized it at the Major League Level. Mondesi is still young (he’s about to turn 23 in less than a month), but he’s already shown some progress in his Major League call-up this year, which is 42 plate appearances and 13 games. His strikeout rate is down (from 36.7 percent to 25.5 percent) and he is showing more power as well (his .143 ISO is a career high thus far). Granted, his numbers aren’t pretty by any means: 55 wRC+ (actually the highest mark as a Royal thus far) and .214/.233/.357 slash with a .590 OPS. But, he is a middle infielder, he is showing progress and he’s still over three years away from the “plateau” mark for prospects (age 26 is considered the point where prospects are what they are). With Escobar not being much better (37 wRC+), it may be worth it for Yost to see if Mondesi could handle an extended look at SS in the second half (or at least splitting duties with Escobar).

Herrera has always had a soft spot with me as a prospect, as I was a big fan of him when I was covering the Giants and prospects more closely in my Optioned to Fresno days. I wrote a couple of pieces for Seedlings 2 Stars (now called Call to the Pen), including a piece profiling the top Latin American prospects in the NL West back in 2012, which listed Herrera as a top SS prospect in the Rockies system. (It looks bad now, as I said I liked Herrera more than Trevor Story, who is now the Rockies starting SS; can’t win them all I guess). While Herrera hasn’t turned into the stud I foresaw him as during his NL West days, I felt the Royals getting Herrera off waivers was a low-risk, high-reward move. Herrera isn’t killing it at the MLB level, but he’s doing much better in his limited 15 game stint with the Royals than his 11 game-13 plate appearance stint with the Reds (who designated him for assignment). As a Royal, his slash is .271/.279/.407 and his wRC+ is 80 (much better than the -25 mark with the Reds). This is Herrera’s first year playing at the Major League level, so some growing pains are to be expected, but right now Herrera is a nice utility type player who could help the Royals down the stretch, especially if he gets his base-stealing together (he stole 36 bags in Double-A in 2016; he’s 1 for 3 this year with the Royals). His plate discipline still needs major work (only 1 walk in 72 plate appearances at the Major League level), but he could fill the Merrifield role nicely should Merrifield get dealt by the deadline. He’s mostly risk and upside, like Mondesi, but unlike Mondesi, he doesn’t have age on his side (he’s 25). However, he could provide some decent production from multiple positions if given an extended chance in the Big Leagues.

For sure worth giving a look to

Hunter Dozier, 1B/3B/OF; Jorge Bonifacio, OF; Jorge Soler, OF

Dozier, the Royals’ 2013 first round pick (and 8th pick overall) is finally getting an extended look thanks to injuries to other players (first to Lucas Duda and now to Soler) and the team currently in “rebuilding” mode. Dozier’s an interesting player because he played shortstop in college and really doesn’t have a “position” yet, but he’s a polished player who flashes a lot of tools and really has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues. The KC Star also recognized that this may be a chance for Dozier to “prove himself” considering the circumstances of this season, as evidenced in this quote from writer Vahe Gregorian:

With the Royals losing routinely, with their more-established players being subject to trade as the franchise seeks to replenish its farm system, Dozier’s audition is one of the more compelling tales to follow this season.

Dozier has certainly got an extended chance, as evidenced by his 156 plate appearances and 43 games played thus far. Unfortunately, the numbers don’t look impressive, as he is only posting a .222/.282/.354 slash with a 73 wRC+ and four home runs and 11 RBI. That being said, Dozier has the size (6’4, 220) and the power potential (graded a 60 for raw power from scouts) to be successful, and he has proven at the minor league level that his power is for real (.238 ISO in Omaha last season). The big question for him will be plate discipline, as his strikeout rate is over 30 percent and hovered around 38 percent in Omaha a season ago. If he can lessen than K’s, up the walks, and turn some of his groundballs (41.2 percent) to line drives and fly balls, then it is possible that Dozier can live up to his first-round pick status as soon as this season at the MLB level.

Bonifacio is a polarizing outfielder in the Royals system. The younger brother of Emilio Bonifacio, and a top prospect in the Royals system just a couple of seasons ago (he rated as the 10th best prospect in the Royals system by Fangraphs as of 2016), Bonifacio looked like he was on his way to being something special, as evidenced by his stint with the big league club where he posted a slash of .255/.320/.432 with 17 home runs, 55 runs scored, an OPS of .752 and a wRC+ of 99 in 113 games and 422 plate appearances last season. In fact, it looked likely that Bonifacio would be a shoe-in for a starting outfield spot out of Spring Training, especially considering Soler’s troubles at the plate in 2017, and Lorenzo Cain leaving in free agency. However, in March during Spring Training, Major League Baseball suspended Bonifacio 80 games for testing positive for PEDs and either he became forgotten by fans or an object of vitriol for trying to “cheat” and “deflower” the game.

However, recently Bonifacio’s suspension finally came to an end, and his presence has been made known early on. While it’s only five games and 18 plate appearances, Bonifacio is posting a slash of .313/.389/.375. In his rehab assignment in Omaha, the Dominican outfielder hit .392 with a .442 wOBA and a 167 wRC+. Considering how lackluster the Royals’ bats have been this summer (especially in June), Bonifacio is a welcome surprise who may be the centerpiece of this Royals offense if/once Merrifield and Moustakas are traded. Granted, it’s a small sample size, and Bonifacio has a long way to go to endear himself to Royals fans after the suspension (if there’s one thing KC sports fans don’t like its players with controversy; though they get over it if the players produce; hence Tyreek Hill of the Chiefs), but Bonifacio getting to a hot start is a good sign for a player who’s looking to build upon a promising campaign in 2017.

Soler is an interesting player because he won’t be back for a while. As of June 15th, doctors said he’d probably be out for at least another six weeks due to a broken foot. At this point, the Royals most likely will only get a month and a half of Soler in the lineup at best. That being said, this is less about Soler’s production now, and more what he means to this Royals roster in the future. A former Cubs top prospect who came over in the Wade Davis trade, Soler shut up his critics somewhat early on in the year with a strong start to 2018 to make up for a disappointing Royals career leading up to this season. In 257 plate appearances, Soler was posting a slash of .265/.354/.466 with a wRC+ of 125 to go along with 9 home runs and 28 RBI. Considering his wRC+ was 32 a year ago, many Royals fans reconsidered the Cuban prospect whom they figured to be a bust at the conclusion of the 2017 season. The nice thing about Soler is he has two years left on his deal after this year, and he comes relatively cheap at $4.667 million per year. While it’s unlikely that Soler will have a major effect on the Royals in the W-L column in 2018, if he can come back from injury and finish the year strong, it could have a beneficial effect not only for him personally going into next year but also the Royals organization as a whole, as the club can depend on him being a starting OF in Kauffman for 2019 and 2020 at the very least.

At 26 years old, and only 307 MLB games under his belt, there is a lot of upside to Soler as an athletic, strong-hitting outfielder (though he does have some lapses on the fielding end). A solid finish on what has been his best MLB season so far would be a nice cap to a surprising and reaffirming season not just for the outfielder, but Royals fans overall who are looking for hope on the offensive end of things for the future. This year showed that Soler has potential to live up to his ballyhooed Cubs prospect hype in the near future in the KC blue and white.

As long as he stays healthy of course.